The Wolfman was just on TCM. What a fantastic way to lead off a Saturday morning! Anyway it reminded me of this piece I wrote, all the way back in 2008, which remains one of the better things I’ve uploaded to the internet thus far. But it hasn’t appeared on my own website, until now…
A couple Saturday nights ago I went to a midnight screening at the New Beverly of Never Too Young To Die. If you somehow missed this thankfully unique artifact from the 1980s, this is a movie which stars John Stamos as a gymnast who discovers that his father (played by that guy who played James Bond only once) was a secret agent recently killed in action. Vanity (my personal favorite Prince protégé) plays a gun expert and colleague of Stamos’s dad who arrives at the funeral to protect Stamos from his dad’s killer, who is naturally played by Gene Simmons of Kiss. Gene Simmons is a terrorist and a master of disguise who also enjoys dressing up like a really, really ugly woman. Cross-dressing experiments are an effective fear-inducing technique on Gene’s part, because I was only watching the movie and quickly found myself queasy with nausea.
I’m sure it goes without saying at this point that this movie is unforgettably bad. From the arbitrary plot to the demented dialogue to the violently-swerving tone to the flowery music to the flamboyant flannel-and-neon-wearing Asian sidekick, Never Too Young To Die is a real contender for the laughably-awful/ awfully-laughable hall of fame.
And in a weird way, the whole experience got me thinking about werewolves. Again.
Every genre has its own highs and lows, its own share of beautiful badness. But almost all of them have that balance apportioned reasonably fairly. For all the crap, both the fun crap and the depressing crap, you can always find at least a couple high water marks. Take the spy movie, for example: For every Leonard Part 6, there is a Casino Royale. For every For Your Height Only, there is a Bourne Ultimatum or three. The genre can withstand Stamos, Simmons, and the rest of their over-the-top ilk, because there are enough serious filmmakers out there to elevate it.
I’m exaggerating of course, but not by much. Every major strain of genre filmmaking, whether it be the war movie or the alien invasion/science fiction movie, the time travel movie or the samurai movie, the Western or the boxing movie or the comic book movie or the vampire movie – all these have their few-and-far-between classics that make sitting through all the more inferior efforts worthwhile.
The exception is the werewolf movie.
In the realm of the werewolf movie, it goes this way: There is only one indisputable classic. One. There are only a couple other movies that are any good at all; a few more that are promising but don’t quite get to good; and a metric ton of the turds that just stink out loud. To my knowledge, this is the one genre with absolutely NO so-bad-it’s-good entries. There is no werewolf equivalent of Never Too Young To Die.
The werewolf character is one of my favorite archetypes, so I hope to speak on the subject with just a little accumulated authority, and talk for a moment about why there are so few decent werewolf movies. The overall reason, I think, is a fundamental misunderstanding among filmmakers of what has made the concept so interesting to so many cultures for so many centuries. Either that, or a general lack of purpose.
In his invaluable book The Monster Show, David J. Skal writes about the way that werewolf and vampire legends are historically intertwined, citing the fact that in Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula is technically a werewolf in addition to a vampire, because he does turn into a wolf at one point in the story. Very true.
But I think that the notion of connecting the two traditions has led far too many storytellers and filmmakers to miss the mark by a wide margin. Cinematically, werewolves are treated too often like vampires with longer fangs and much more hair, and occasionally the reverse also occurs. (The movie Underworld is notable for doing both – trying to borrow the coolness of both concepts, thereby cancelling both out, and achieving absolutely nothing of interest.)
I believe that it’s much more compelling to look at the two legends as separate and fundamentally thematically different. The way I have come to see it, vampires are about sex and power, lust, temptation and corruption. Werewolves are about rage, plain and simple. The werewolf story works best when depicted as a metaphor for uncontrollable anger, which is why so many people relate, yet also (hopefully) fear the idea.
Werewolf stories are also about loneliness, which vampire stories must never be about. Vampire stories, by nature, have nothing to do with loneliness, because vampires are, by nature, always looking for company. This is probably why so many low-budget vampire movies dip into the soft-porn realm. Frankly the werewolf movies do that a lot too, and that tendency doesn’t make me one-thousandth as happy as you might think. I watch more of this junk than you want to reckon, and all that sex stuff in monster movies is a little too much chocolate in my peanut butter.
So yeah, the loneliness of being different, of thinking different, of having done different – and terrible – things. An interesting cinematic treatment of werewolves, to me, would be to consider the beast as the Travis Bickle, or perhaps the William Munny, of movie monsters.
I would still hope to see (or make) a werewolf movie of even half the quality of An American Werewolf In London – for my money, the only truly great (in all meanings of the word) werewolf movie. Another day I will compile a more comprehensive list of the werewolf movies I’ve seen and where I consider them to fall, but the bottom line is that, from where I stand, there’s never been one as good (or better) since John Landis’s horror-comedy classic, and arguably there wasn’t one of nearly that consistently high quality beforehand either. [The original 1941 Wolf Man, with its genre-defining screenplay by Curt Siodmak, is such an important movie, but it definitely has grayed noticeably with time.]
Landis has a slightly different definition of werewolves than I have discussed thus far – in the pantheon of cinematic monsters, Landis affectionately considers the werewolf a “schmuck.” The werewolf just can’t win. He wants a happy life, he wants true love. He really doesn’t want to be an animalistic killer, but come the full moon, he don’t got much choice. He’s kind of a sad sack. In the case of Larry Talbot or David Kessler, that’s certainly an apt description. But I think my thesis holds, since there inherently is loneliness in the outcome of An American Werewolf In London. Certainly it is sad to ponder the fate of the young nurse Alex Price (played by Jenny Agutter) after the film’s final scene.
So I guess what I’m saying is that another reason that I’m continually fascinated by the idea of werewolves in movies is because it’s almost entirely an untapped area. One great movie, and very few decent ones to stand near it, means there is plenty of room for company.
Also I love monsters, and werewolves are by far my favorite monsters. They contain the potential for the most compelling ideas and relatable concepts. Also and finally, they look like dogs. If I have to explain here why dogs are the best of all the animals, I can’t expect to be the one to change your mind. We’d have to agree to disagree, or I would have to agree that you are wrong. Dogs are the greatest. Werewolves usually kinda look like dogs, which is as good a reason as any to have them as a favorite movie monster.
By the way, I titled this entry “Part One” up above because you can be sure that as long as I am writing these essays, I will come back to this subject again.
I imagine what I’ll do is, from time to time, cover a couple of the werewolf-related projects that I uncover as I trawl through the bookshelves, comic book racks, multiplexes, and horror aisles. (And sometimes I’ll even share my own drawings…)
Today I will finish up this massive entry with the two most recent werewolf-related stories I have checked out. One is a movie and one is a book.
Skinwalkers is a werewolf movie that came out last year. Thanks to better-than-average production value, a couple original concepts sprinkled into the more generic elements, and a generally good cast, it isn’t terrible. And yeah, that is probably the highest possible compliment I can cobble together. It’s not terrible, and is in fact passably entertaining.
On the side of goodness:
The central idea of rival werewolf brigades with conflicting goals – one group wants to end the curse forever, the other wants to prolong the curse indefinitely – is a compelling one. I’m not sure the movie that was made takes the concept as far as it deserves to do, but it’s a good idea. Also, the ending, which I won’t ruin, isn’t exactly satisfying, but does at least leave things in an intriguing morally ambiguous place.
On the side of badness:
I wish that filmmakers would get off the generic Native American angle in horror movies – it makes everybody in all directions seem stupid and callow at this point. Thankfully, Skinwalkers doesn’t dwell too long on the usual Cliffs Notes exploitation of a long-exploited culture, but it is right there in the title. Also lame: The werewolves spend much more time in human form shooting guns at each other than brawling in wolf form, and the final confrontation completely visually evokes a similar scene in Terminator 2. Such heavy “inspiration” in a movie is never not distracting.
The two leads in Skinwalkers are played by actors with familiar names to those familiar with credits outside A-list – as the mother of a 12-year-old boy who may hold the key to breaking the werewolf curse, Rhona Mitra; and as the cursed uncle who will do anything to protect the boy, Elias Koteas. I always notice those memorable names because Elias Koteas (The Thin Red Line) is a reliable character actor who gives intensely genuine performances, like a kinder gentler Robert De Niro; and because, well, Rhona Mitra (Doomsday) is a spectacular looking woman. Also helping out in the mission is a girl named Sarah Carter, who is also incredibly fun to look at. Hey, I’m only a man, and you know how that goes.
The evil werewolf gang are led by that guy from Roswell who always seems like he’d be a friendly enough guy in real life, but to be generous, is never the most interesting thing about the movies he’s in (and we’re usually talking about problematic movies like The Grudge or D-War.) Also in the gang are a familiar-looking character actor that even I can’t place, a girl who is so unrealistically hot that it’s actually kind of annoying, and a black guy who looks exactly like Brad Pitt circa Legends of The Fall.
The werewolf makeup, by the late Stan Winston and his studio, is interesting and thoughtful. These werewolves exist in a state between human and canine, as opposed to so many other depictions which lean towards the latter. It’s a good, creepy envisioning that would certainly come off as much more creepy, if they weren’t shot so brightly. The Bruckheimer-esque cinematography does the monster no favors here.
Again, overall, as I say, “a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes the concept interesting.” Here’s another example of that. Still, this movie is worth a watch for anyone who digs werewolf movies as much as I do. (You need to consume less sugar.)
2. Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow
The striking black-and-crimson visual design coupled with the title drew me in to this one. I didn’t know it was a werewolf book, until the inside jacket head-nod from no less than David Mamet named it so. I bought the book and it was a good read.
The story is about a lonely dogcatcher who meets a temperamental girl who happens to be a werewolf. (The werewolves in this envisioning appear as slightly bigger, meaner dogs.) He and she fall in love, and she leaves her pack for him just in time, because werewolf warfare is breaking out throughout Los Angeles, particularly in my personal stomping grounds of Silver Lake and Echo Park. The book digresses consistently to follow the supporting players, such as the cunning pack leader who hides out as the newly-adopted dog of a kindly elderly woman, who finds that he likes the new surroundings more than he expected. It’s a very episodic structure.
It’s also written in epic verse. Scared yet? Basically, this is an unusual way to go for such lowbrow material, but it works. The format allows for more poetry than the genre usually is imbued with. By poetry I mean descriptive imagery and thoughtful phrasing, not annoying rhyme schemes. Once you train your eye to read this format, it’s pretty easy to get through. While I wish the book spent more time with the central two characters and had a more hard-charging plot, I greatly respect it for bringing more art to werewolves than they usually get served.
I also need to add that the final line of one of the last chapters is one of the sharpest, awesomest sentences in the whole boo,k and would by itself be worth double what the book cost. It’s the sentence that I would always hope to read in a book like this one.
And I just like any thriller that takes time out of the narrative for a passage like the following (Read it and you’ll probably very quickly figure out whether or not this book is your kind of thing):
Peabody the cop drives, thinking about the dogs.
An old conversation from years past drifts back to him.
On a stakeout that tested their sanity and bore no fruit,
his partner, the wise man who taught him the clockwork of the world,
said to Peabody, “You know why we domesticated dogs and cats?”
“Why?” asked Peabody.
“Well, see, some people think it’s because they’re carnivores,
and they’ll chase down rats and mice and other vermin for us,
keeping the campsite clean, so to speak.
But my particular theory is that we keep them around because,
well, they’re funny.”
Peabody remembers the tired smile they shared at this thought.
“Funny?” Peabody asked.
“Yeah,” his partner said. “Cats chase their shadows,
hang on the curtain,
and dogs, well, they chase their tails
stick their nose in your crotch
and hump your mother-in-law’s leg.
They’re just funny.
Bunnies are cute, but they’re not funny,
so we left them in the wild.
But parrots talk funny, so we took some of them home too.”
Peabody had thought about this for a minute before offering up
what he thought was the perfect challenge.
“What?” his partner said.
“Monkeys are funny,” said Peabody, “so, why didn’t we pick monkeys?”
His partner sighed and shook his head with sad dismay.
Monkeys’ idea of fun is throwing their shit at you.
Monkeys always take the joke a step too far.”
Peabody misses his partner.